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When I was in Munich last weekend, a bunch of us (us being my American cohorts and I) were talking about romantically crossing cultures—that is, what we thought of ending up with someone from another country, another language, etc. And one friend of mine said that he didn’t think about it, and would, in fact, prefer to end up with someone who’s not American (which, in hindsight, means that he is thinking about it, right?). And I, new Erasmus anthropologist that I am, said that I actually think that that would be difficult. There’s a certain comfort and familiarity that comes from being with people who are from your country (or at least your language), yes, but there’s also a certain understanding. Of, if not humor and worldview, then of whence humor and worldview come.
But this week I realized that there is also the very real and often underestimated challenge of understanding one another literally.
What do I mean? I will explain (in my mother tongue):
So this past week was the second week of international orientation at Universität Bremen, which means that people are starting to really get to know each other and feel comfortable with one another, which means that foreign students be flirting. Except that they’re from all over Europe, and thus do not share a first language. And some of them speak really good English and/or German, but some of them do not (or only speak really good German or English). And so what we are left with is European accented animal attraction. But at least they all have some German or English in common. That is, at least, what I thought.
Last night a bunch of students from this program went out to a disco. And a girl whom I met on line while waiting to get my visa (no, I still haven’t gotten it), who is from Russia but has lived in Germany for about a year now, also wanted to go to this disco, and so she met up with me as I was meeting up with some of my peers pre party. She speaks only Russian and German. She met a friend of a friend, who speaks only Turkish and English. At the beginning of the night, I joked that we should all forgo all languages save those of drink and dance.
This was, of course, taken literally, and these two individuals (both of whom I do quite like, and I hope, Reader, that you do not take the following to be a negative assessment of either of them by me), who do not have any language in common, ended up doing exactly that. Later—much later—the two ran up to me.
“We need you to translate!” she said in German.
“What does ‘schnell’ mean?” he asked.
“Fast,” I said. “Why?”
“He asked me to come home with him and I said that was too schnell!”
“That is too schnell!”
“But we have such fun together!”
“But you guys don’t speak the same language. I mean, you literally don’t understand each other.”
“I know! Exactly!”
“Tell her that I will not disturb her, but we will hang out every day.”
“He wants to hang out a lot.”
“I have to work!”
“She has to work.”
“I will call her.”
“Okay—why don’t you give each other your numbers?”
“Wait—what language will you speak in over the phone?”
“We will call you!”
“I am leaving in thirty minutes.”
“I must go in thirty minutes!”
“You guys are both leaving in thirty minutes. Well, go! Don’t waste them talking to me!”
And with that, they ran out onto the disco floor. And I thought of my earlier conversation, and of how right and wrong I had managed to be.
And also how nice it is when vignettes from Love, Actually can play out in real life. If only for one evening on a dance floor.